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Area's adoration for trains only grows with new Plant City platform

PLANT CITY

It's a picturesque February afternoon in Florida, the kind that makes the Chamber of Commerce drool.

Temperatures hover in the high 60s, not a cloud in the sky and downtown Plant City is buzzing with activity.

It's also a perfect day to watch trains.

"I'm always looking for the next unusual train," Alan Smith said. "You never know what you'll see."

Smith, dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and baseball cap, stands on the brand spanking new Plant City observation deck's ramp and waits. He glances up and down the rail line that splits the Union Station Depot and the recently constructed observation deck.

Then, it happens.

A train whistle ever so faintly blows somewhere in the distance. No one else seems to take notice, but few have Smith's trained ear. He cocks his head to the side, pivoting his ear in the whistle's direction. It blows again, this time a smidge louder. Still, no one seems to hear it but Smith.

"Nope, that's not an Amtrak," Smith says. "It's the BNSF"

The whistle's volume increases as the train rumbles into town. After roughly two minutes, the orange engine comes into view with the stark white Burlington Northern Santa Fe logo splashed across the engine.

"Told you," Smith says with a grin.

Railfanning has been around for years, but Plant City's recent additions to its downtown scene have made it a destination for those who love all things train.

"It's a lot bigger than you'd think," Smith said.

•••

Even new visitors to town quickly realize Plant City, a town named after the man who brought railroads to Florida's west coast, holds a special connection with trains.

Henry B. Plant's legacy remains a vital part of the entire East Hillsborough community today. From Brandon to Seffner to Valrico, the steel wheels of trains serve as a constant, whether they disrupt morning traffic by crisscrossing roads or pierce the evening quiet with their whistles.

For some, however, they prove to be only a source of joy.

In Plant City, the freshly minted Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum contains various train-centric artifacts. The two-story observation deck now provides a 24/7 option for those who enjoy watching them pass by.

The H.B. Plant Historical Society, which houses model trains and more collectibles, is a few blocks over. Local shops, like the Whistle Stop Café, base their business around trains. Even the manhole covers in neighboring McCall Park feature steam locomotives.

"There's such a rich train history here," Smith said. "And the city has done a great job preserving how trains have been a part of the area's past."

Willaford has had a major hand in adding to the scene. The retired engineer recently donated a full-size locomotive and caboose that sit just in front of the Union Station Depot, in addition to other various memorabilia.

"This is helping to keep your hometown your hometown," he said. "Trains are part of this city."

Dan Gorman, 81, works inside the museum and said he has noticed an increase in traffic since the observation deck was installed.

"It never ceases to amaze me," he said. "Just how many people are fascinated by these trains."

•••

A railfan is a train buff and by all accounts, Smith oozes it from every pore.

Like most adult enthusiasts, his love of trains started at an early age while growing up along the Jersey shore.

"I can remember my grandmother and mother taking me into Jersey City to see the subways and standing along the fence watching them go by, jumping up and down," he said. "I was hooked."

Smith, 49, said the massive engines instantly captured his attention.

"I loved the power and speed," Smith said. "I can sleep through a train. The sound is very soothing to me. It's almost like a calming storm that passes through and then moves on."

Smith moved down to Florida in 1996 and eventually began to film trains. And with the advent of the Internet, and YouTube specifically, Smith discovered there were people all over the world who shared his interest.

"YouTube gave me the ability to share what I catch with the world," Smith said. "I'm connecting with people all around the globe from little old Plant City."

Filming under the user name "Millenniumforce," Smith now had an outlet in which to share his hobby.

His videos have totaled more than 16 million views on YouTube. He has filmed a knuckle breaking on a train that appeared on WTVT-Ch. 13's newscast as well as viral videos that feature Smith's comedic side.

"I've been recognized as far away as New York City," Smith said. "People know me from the videos and they want to greet me or take a picture with me. It's a great feeling to make a kid happy. It's wonderful and I eat it up."

The love of trains seems to have no age restriction. Toddlers rode kiddie trains at the inaugural Railfest Feb. 7-8, but for every small child, there were twice as many adults and grandparents.

"Trains are for everybody of any age," Smith said.

•••

Willaford, 76, also has a long history with trains, dating back to his earliest memories. The Plant City native, who worked 42 years for CSX Railroads, recalls the omnipresent trains being as common as Florida sunshine.

"We lived right by the tracks and when the train would come through it would rattle the china and everything but it got to be where we didn't even notice it anymore," he said. "I reckon the first sound I ever heard when they laid me in the crib was a train whistle."

For some, it's a family affair. Matt Brown and his mother, Felicia, traveled from Lakeland to visit the observation deck. Matt, 23, tracks train locations through a scanner and application on his phone and the pair films four or five times a week. He also sets up his camera on a tripod and films the trains before uploading them to YouTube.

"I've always been into trains as long as I can remember," he said. "Then in 2009 I got into filming them and watching them on YouTube. It's a new experience every time (a train) comes through. It's exciting."

Felicia, who is relatively new to recording trains, said the two "get a chance to bond" while out viewing trains, even if it's not always at the most convenient time of day.

"He once woke me up at 1 in the morning to chase the circus train when it came through town," Felicia recalled with a laugh. "We had to go catch that train."

•••

Smith is proud of what he does and doesn't find his hobby the least bit odd.

"Not in the slightest," he said. "There are a lot of diehards like me."

He has also been able to make a living from it. Smith is able to monetize his videos with Youtube's Partner Program. Smith, who films nearly every day, is paid a small fee per view through ads on his clips. Smith said he made roughly $3,700 last December.

"This is my hobby," he said. "But also my job now."

On this afternoon, another train approaches the Union Street Depot. Smith readies his camera while a small crowd gathers to greet the engine. Two little kids excitedly jump up and down while their parents wave to the conductor. Smith follows the train as it passes but shakes his head. It wasn't the locomotive he had hoped to see.

"That wasn't the one," he said. "Maybe next time."

And in the city of trains, there always will be another.

Brandon Wright can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Area's adoration for trains only grows with new Plant City platform 02/19/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 4:35pm]

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